As this year’s elections near, it is acknowledged that the LRT issue will not move towards any significant resolution until after the results are in. First will be the Ontario election in June, where PC leader Patrick Brown has already stated that his government would support either Bus Rapid Transit or LRT—whatever Hamilton Council wants. For their part, Hamilton Councillors will be forced to confront the issue when they go to the polls in October, and depending on the outcome of the Ontario election some of the votes seen in the LRT showdown last spring may be subject to change. The potential removal of the threat of being blamed for blowing a billion dollar handout will no doubt be a major factor. In the meantime there is some interesting research that might help explain how Hamilton found itself on a fast track to LRT before a lot of people were paying attention.
Dr David Hensher is a transportation expert who heads the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney. He believes there is a systematic bias to reject Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in favour of LRT. In a paper titled Why is Light Rail Transit starting to dominate Bus Rapid Transit Again?, he writes “It is also quite marked how absent any serious consideration of bus rapid transit (BRT) as an alternative (to LRT) is. “ He goes on to say, “Part of the problem may appear to be a perception that any transit option associated with the word ‘bus’ … conjures up images of noisy polluting buses in mixed traffic congestion; yet BRT can, if designed appropriately …deliver a service that is equivalent or better than LRT.”
You’d almost think Dr. Hensher was a fly on the wall back in 2008 when LRT mania first struck Hamilton and city staff were conducting what were described as public consultation meetings but what were in fact exercises in manipulated consent for LRT. Hensher writes, “ Too often, policy-makers pushed by politicians and the media, commission studies that pre-select the modal solution (which is increasingly LRT) and reject without evidence the possibility that another option such as BRT might provide considerably a better value for money.”
In Hamilton BRT was rejected as a result of highly leveraged feedback at meetings that were attended largely by pro-LRT enthusiasts. On the strength of comments from 151 workshop attendees, staff were already recommending that Bus Rapid Transit be dropped from further consideration. Hensher calls this knee –jerk rejection of BRT “emotional ideology,” and certainly in the Hamilton context the phenomenon is prominently on display.
In Hamilton, former transit boss David Dixon noted the current amount of transit ridership barely justifies Bus Rapid Transit. LRT supporters counter with the claim that the real reason for supporting LRT is the potential economic uplift caused by increased property values along the LRT route. But McMaster Transit expert Christopher Higgins, in general an LRT supporter, cautions us to be careful when ascribing economic uplift to LRT alone, suggesting past studies in the area may have failed to take all factors into consideration. For instance, “Locations throughout an urban area may already be well served in terms of transportation accessibility, such as through convenient access to a highway system that offers low travel times with little congestion or…existing transit options in dense and mixed-use central locations. In these examples, even if it offers exemplary service, the addition of a new transit line may not result in much of a net benefiﬁt in accessibility or locational advantage compared to present options and therefore should not be expected to greatly impact land values.” In the Hamilton case we have the Main-King corridor, already served by five bus lines, including the Express “B” Line, and yet still have enough road capacity to allow auto traffic to move at reasonable speeds even during rush hour. Dr, Higgins provided as an example Sacramento, where the area’s uncongested highway network “manifested in low ridership and insigniﬁcant land value effects in LRT station areas.”
Back to Hensher, he points to BRT systems in nearby places like Pittsburgh and Montreal and concludes, ”buses, especially bus-based transitway systems are arguably better value for money, (roughly one-third the capital cost) and if designed properly, can have the essential characteristic of permanence and visibility claimed to be important to attract property development along the route… All I ask is that bus-based and rail-based systems are treated equally in an assessment of their merits, rather than judged on some pretext that is shrouded in emotion and modal bias.” None of this discussion takes into account the very recent rollout of non-polluting battery-powered buses.